Anne’s posting prompts me to recall a favorite book from my own childhood: Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It (1902), in which a group of young Londoners, exiled to the countryside, unearth It. “It” is an ill-tempered sand fairy (the Psammead) who, only after some good-natured badgering, agrees to grant the children one wish each day. The wishes — “to grow wings and fly” for example — provide high adventure, but ultimately fail to deliver the hoped for outcomes. The novel unfolds as a series of expectations gone awry.
While the storyline is formulaic enough, the Psammead was a welcome counterpoint to the benign flower girls that dominated the fairy market of my youth; the sand fairy is unbecoming, largely immobile, and given to aphoristic pronouncements (“autres temps, autres moeurs” it quips) that baffle the children — at least for the length of one chapter. My sister and I unearthed “It” in the children’s collection at the Santa Rosa Public Library during one of our regular foraging trips. I suppose we were about 10 years old at the time.
What could a couple of latch-key kids in California have in common with the cosseted children in Nesbit’s nursery? First, a liberating absence of parental control and second, a childish conviction that adventure is a fundamental right stingily withheld by those more concerned with social convention than sensible enjoyment of life. My real-life Mama was a bona fide beatnik who instilled a healthy disregard for social order in all her girls — how amusing it seems now that our little cultural rebellion consisted of shelving old-fashioned English children’s literature alongside the paperback editions of Robert Creeley’s love poems and de Lautreamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (1965 ed., trans. Guy Warnham). For a child, “It” was right at home amongst these books, part of a familiar landscape of poetry and storytelling that begins with a longing for escape and ends with a longing for home. We simply appropriated a bit of the collectively-owned library collection and inserted it into the right spot on our own shelf.
The Psammead — perpetually seeking escape from the children — reminded me of a family friend who was equally as gruff, dismissive and also as spontaneously generous to us. Sal was as capricious and potent an ally as any sand fairy could be, autres temps notwithstanding. The children themselves, with their fractious sibling disputes and love/hate relationship with parental authority, were perfectly recognizable as peers, in spite of their pinafores and bows. As for the wish-come-true storyline — well, each fleeting wish only lasts for a day, and always delivers something different from what was wanted. It was a perfect fit with the unpredictable life of a single-parent household, constantly uprooted and chasing each opportunity that presented itself.
I can immediately recall the library binding on “It” — a kind of royal blue, in a dimpled and heavily varnished fabric — and the dimensions — slightly larger than a brick. An octavo, I guess. My sister and I placed a joint request with Santa for a copy of our own, to be read side by side while sprawled on the floor. At the time, the book was out of print (or so we were told…) and Santa’s search ended in disappointment: out of print meant out of reach. Today, the situation is reversed: the text, freed from the confines of copyright, has become a free and widely available public good online. I think Edith, a life-long Fabian, would approve.
FictionFinder does a nice job of clustering all of the various manifestations of this fine fairy tale within single “superwork”. (I was a little disappointed the Psammead didn’t merit an entry in the browsable index of fictional characters; I guess someone else will have to incorporate “It” into another story before that will happen.) If you want to find a copy of the book, for purchase or loan, WorlCat.org is a good place to start. There, bourgeois mums (or the nannies in their employ) can purchase a new edition. Single-parent households (at least those led by music teachers) may still prefer a trip to the local library. As a child of 60’s, I’m happiest with the versions that have been released into the public sphere, to be shelved anywhere you like. I like the TEI-encoded version from Indiana (encoded by Perry Willet, no less), which offers all the advantages of full-text searching, and the (free!) audiobook version is also pretty neat — but the page images from a 1905 edition at the Library of Congress provided the nostalgic satisfaction I was looking for — minus the hue of the binding. You can also download a plain text version from Project Gutenberg. The Psammead has lost none of his magic. Next time I’m in Santa Rosa, I’ll be sure to look him up.
Constance Malpas is a Research Scientist at OCLC. Her work focuses on data-driven analysis of library collections and services, with a special emphasis on strategic planning and managing institutional change. She has a particular interest in the organization of knowledge and research practices in the sciences.